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Maxim Gorki’s “On the Rafts” (1895)

 

By Vladimir Nabokov

Let us select and examine a typical Gorki short story, for instance the one called “On the Rafts.”* Consider the author’s method of exposition. A certain Mitya and a certain Sergey are steering the raft across the wide and misty Volga. The owner of the raft, who is somewhere on the forward part, is heard yelling angrily, and the man Sergey mutters for the reader to hear: “Shout away! Here’s your miserable devil of a son Mitya who could not break a straw across his knee and you put him to steer a raft; and then you yell so that all the river [and the reader] hears you. You were mean enough [Sergey goes on to explain in monologue] not to take a second steersman [but make your son help me instead], so now you may shout as much as you like.” These last words the author notes—and God knows how many authors have used this particular turn—these last words were growled out loud enough to be heard forward as if Sergey (the author adds) wished them to be heard (heard by the audience, we add, for this kind of exposition looks uncommonly like the opening scene of some old faded play with the valet and the maid dusting the furniture and talking about their masters).

Presently we learn from Sergey’s sustained monologue that the father had first found a pretty wife for his son Mitya and then had made his daughter-in-law his mistress. Sergey, your healthy cynic, mocks poor moping Mitya and both talk at length in the rhetorical and false style which Gorki reserved for such occasions. Mitya explains that he is going to join a certain religious sect, and the depths of the good old Russian soul are forcibly conveyed to the reader. The scene shifts to the other end of the raft, and now the father is shown with his sweetheart Maria, his son’s wife. He is the vigorous and colorful old man, a well-known figure in fiction. She, the alluring female, twists her body with the movement of that much quoted animal, the cat (lynx is a later variation), and leans toward her lover who proceeds to deliver a speech. We not only hear again the author’s high-faluting tones, but almost see him stalking this way and that between his characters and giving them the cue. “I am a sinner, I know,” the old father says. “Mitya my son is suffering I know, but is my own position a pleasant one?”—and so on. In both dialogues, the one between Mitya and Sergey, and the one between the father and Maria, the author is trying to make it all less improbable, is careful to make his characters say, as an old playwright would, “we have talked about it more than once already,” for otherwise the author might expect the reader to wonder why on earth it was necessary to place two couples on a raft in the middle of the Volga to make them talk of their conflicts. On the other hand, if the constant repetition of such conversation is accepted, one cannot help wondering whether the raft ever got anywhere. People do not talk very much when they steer in a fog across a wide and powerful river—but this, I suppose, is what is called stark realism.

Dawn breaks, and here is what Gorki manages to do in the way of nature description: “The emerald green fields along the Volga glittered with dew diamonds” (quite a jeweller’s display). Meanwhile, on the raft the father suggests killing Mitya and “a mysterious charming smile plays on the woman’s lips.” Curtain.

We must note here that Gorki’s schematic characters and the mechanical structure of the story are lined up with such dead forms as the fabliau or the moralite of medieval times. We must also note the low level of culture—what we call in Russia “semi-intelligentsia”—which is disastrous in a writer whose essential nature is not vision and imagination (which can work wonders even if an author is not educated). But logical demonstration and a passion for reasoning require, to be successful, an intellectual scope which Gorki completely lacked. Feeling that he had to find some compensation for the poverty of his art and the chaos of his ideas, he always went after the striking subject, the contrast, the conflict, the violent and the harsh—and because what reviewers call “a powerful story” distracts the gentle reader from any true appreciation, Gorki made a strong exotic impression on his readers in Russia and then on his readers abroad. I have heard intelligent people maintain that the utterly false and sentimental story “Twenty-Six Men and a Girl” is a masterpiece. These twenty-six miserable outcasts are working in an underground bakery, rough, coarse, foul-mouthed men surrounding with an almost religious adoration a young girl who comes every day for her bread—then fiercely insulting her when she is seduced by a soldier. This seemed something new, but a closer examination reveals that the story is as traditional and flat as the worst examples of the old school of sentimental and melodramatic writing. There is not a single live word in it, not a single sentence that is not ready-made; it is all pink candy with just that amount of soot clinging to it to make it attractive. From here on there is but one step to so-called Soviet literature.

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* This sentence begins handwritten text on page 5 of a manuscript, beneath a deleted incomplete passage remarking Courtenay’s description of Gorki’s “lurid cheap style.” The preceding pages are not preserved. Ed.

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